Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 6 2013

Monsanto has a public image problem? A surprise?

Thanks to Politico for alerting us to Monsanto’s sudden discovery:  it has just recognized—can you believe this?—that it has a public image problem.

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms.

Monsanto revealed its public image worries in its annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The SEC requires companies to list societal factors that create risk to its profitability. Monsanto’s first three:

1.  Threats to patent rights

Efforts to protect our intellectual property rights and to defend claims against us can increase our costs and will not always succeed; any failures could adversely affect sales and profitability or restrict our ability to do business.

Intellectual property rights are crucial to our business, particularly our Seeds and Genomics segment. We endeavor to obtain and protect our intellectual property rights in jurisdictions in which our products are produced or used and in jurisdictions into which our products are imported.

2. Too much regulation

We are subject to extensive regulation affecting our seed biotechnology and agricultural products and our research and manufacturing processes, which affects our sales and profitability.

Regulatory and legislative requirements affect the development, manufacture and distribution of our products, including the testing and planting of seeds containing our biotechnology traits and the import of crops grown from those seeds, and non-compliance can harm our sales and profitability.

3. Bad public relations

The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions.

Some opponents of our technology actively raise public concern about the potential for adverse effects of our products on human or animal health, other plants and the environment. .. Public concern can affect the timing of, and whether we are able to obtain, government approvals.

Even after approvals are granted, public concern may lead to increased regulation or legislation or litigation…which could affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, and may adversely affect sales of our products to farmers, due to their concerns about available markets for the sale of crops or other products derived from biotechnology.

Maybe if the company was less aggressive about defending itself against risks #1 and #2, public relations would be less of an issue.

Do the close calls on labeling initiatives in California and  Washington worry Monsanto?  Of course they do.  They should.

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 and witnessed Monsanto’s aggressive opposition to labeling.

If public image is a problem for the company, it has nobody to blame but itself. 

The only surprise:  Why did public demands for labeling take so long?

Dec 4 2013

Yes, the environment does influence food choice

I’m in Washington, DC this week on a bit of book tour for Eat, Drink, Vote (see Appearances for schedule).

At my Politics & Prose bookstore event last night, I got asked why I think the food environment matters so much in dietary choice.  Isn’t food choice a matter of personal responsibility?

It is, of course, but the food environment greatly influences personal choice.

Two examples:

Large portions: just about anyone presented with a large portion of food with eat more from it, take in more calories (larger portions have more calories!), and underestimate the calories consumed by a much greater proportion than from a smaller amount.

Salt intake: Because 80% or so of salt in the American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, people eating in restaurants have no control over the amount of salt they take in.

To make it easier for people to take in fewer calories and less salt requires changes in the food environment: serve smaller portions and reduce the salt in restaurant foods.

FDA: Get to work!

Dec 2 2013

What’s up with the retraction of the Séralini feeding-GMO-corn-to-rats study?

The big news over the weekend was that the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, announced that it is retracting the paper it published last year by Séralini et al.

The Séralini paper claimed that feeding genetically modified corn to female rats, with or without added Roundup, caused them to develop more mammary tumors than rats that were not fed GMO corn.

As I discussed in a post at the time, I had my doubts about the scientific quality of the Séralini study.  The findings were based on a small number of animals, were not dose-dependent and failed to exclude the possibility that they could have occurred by chance.

In response to readers’ queries about my critique of the science, I added a clarification:

I very much favor research on this difficult question.   There are enough questions about this study to suggest the need for repeating it, or something like it, under carefully controlled conditions.

In science, repeating someone else’s study is common practice.  Retracting a published paper is not. The editors of Food and Chemical Technology say they are retracting the paper because its findings are inconclusive.

The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation.  A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.

Hello.  Where were they during the peer review process?  Editors decide whether papers get published.  The editors chose to publish the study, even though they had just published a meta-analysis coming to the opposite conclusion: “GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

Now, in response to a barrage of criticism (see letters accompanying the online version of the Séralini study), the editors have given its authors an ultimatum: withdraw the paper (which Séralini says he will not do), or they will retract it.

But the editor wrote Séralini:

Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.

Then how come the retraction?  Guidelines for retracting journal articles published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) say:

 Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  • They have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabri­cation) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  • The findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  • It constitutes plagiarism
  • It reports unethical research

The Séralini paper may be unreliable, but that should have been obvious to the peer reviewers and the journal’s editors.  Otherwise, the paper does not fit any of the established criteria for retraction.

The anti-GMO group, GM Watch, points out that Food and Chemical Technology is a member of COPE.  On this basis, it says the journal’s retraction of the study is ”illicit, unscientific, and unethical.”  It has a point.

This is a mess, with the journal’s editors clearly at fault.  At this point, they should:

  • Admit that the journal’s peer review—and editorial—processes are deeply flawed.
  • State that the journal never should have accepted the paper in the first place.
  • Announce immediate steps to correct the flawed review processes.
  • Apologize to Séralini et al. for having caved in to pressure and blaming him, rather than themselves, for the mess.
  • Publish all documentation about the paper on the journal’s website.
  • Call on the scientific community to repeat the Séralini study with populations of rats large enough to permit statistical analyses of the results.

About the documentation:

  • Séralini, according to a scathing account of this affair in Forbes, plans to sue Food and Chemical Technology for breach of protocol.  The Forbes piece finds ”

    The entire episode, including the oddly worded retraction statement…a black eye for the beleaguered journal and Elsevier [the publisher].”

  • GM Watch posted the “oddly-worded-retraction” letter (from the editor to Séralini) but then took it down.  While the link was still active, I took a screenshot.  I wish I’d copied the whole thing.  If anyone knows where to it, please send the link.

Screenshot 2013-11-28 10.29.58

Additions

  • Thanks to a reader for sending the entire letter from editor Hayes to Séralini.
  • Another reader sent this article suggesting that appointment of a Monsanto-connected editor to the journal may have led to the retraction.
Dec 1 2013

Why no San Francisco Chronicle column today? A repeat (sigh).

I’m repeating this post from last week because, evidently, I’m confused about dates.  Today is the first Sunday in December; last Sunday was not.

Here’s what I said last week.  It’s still true.

It’s the first Sunday in December and normally I would be posting my San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column.  But I am leaving the Chronicle—after five and a half years and nearly 70 columns.  I will write one more for the end of the year, but that will be the last.

My timing turned out to be prescient.  My column appeared in the Chronicle’s free-standing, prize-winning food section.  The Chronicle is now ending that separate section.

I have no information about why this is happening other than what’s been speculated and what the paper’s editor says.

I started writing the column in the spring of 2008 at the invitation of Michael Bauer.  I thought it would be a splendid opportunity—a public platform for my ideas about food and nutrition—and the chance to work with writers whose work I respected.

Indeed it was.

But I also knew that the paper was having financial difficulties and did not expect it to survive for much longer.  I agreed to take on the column under the assumption that the paper would not last more than a year or so.

Wrong.

At first I wrote a column every three weeks.  When that proved too much—I do have a full-time job at NYU, after all—I asked to have the schedule reduced to once a month.  Even that proved difficult.

My editor at the Chronicle has always been the terrific Miriam Morgan, who convincingly discouraged my occasional attempts to give up the column.

But now I’m working on a demanding book manuscript and the column is too much of an interruption.

I will miss having the column, but I won’t miss the deadlines.

My column’s time has come.  But when Miriam Morgan told me that the paper would be making some changes in the food section, I had no idea that this meant the end of the food section as well.

Alas.

But all may not be lost.  Want to help save the Chronicle food section?  Click here.

Nov 29 2013

Thanksgiving weekend reading: Hoosh (hint: Antarctic “cuisine”)

Jason C. Anthony. Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

I’ve just been given a copy of this quirky book written by a guy who spent eight summers hanging out in Antarctica as support staff for the American scientific expeditions.  It’s a treasure.

It never would have occurred to me to wonder what people in Antarctica are eating.  Locally grown, sustainable food?  Not a chance.

As author Jason Anthony puts it,

Is there really such a thing as a venerable Antarctic cuisine?  In a word, no….What visitors to the Antarctic—and we are all visitors—sit down to are imported meals.  There is no Antarctic terroir.

With that said, Anthony offers a food-focused history of the famously disastrous Antarctic expeditions as well as the modern-day  “syrup of American comfort.”

Hoosh, he says, is a stew of pemmican and water which, in its current Antarctic version, is commercial beef and beef fat that arrives in tightly compacted blocks.  Hoosh, you will want to know, is

a cognate of hooch, itself a corruption of the Tlingit hoochinoo, meaning both a Native American tribe on Admiralty Island, Alaska, and the European-style rotgut liquor that they made.

Yum.

The book is replete with photographs and recipes that you won’t want to miss, among them Savoury Seal Brains on Toast, Escallops of Penguin Breasts, and your choice of biscuits from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition or Amundsen’s Fram.

Hooch is an instant food-studies classic.  

I’m not the only one to discover it. Here’s the review in this Sunday’s New York Times.

Nov 28 2013

Happy Thanksgiving: three reports on hunger and politics

New York City’s Coalition Against Hunger has issued a new report on the city’s Superstorm of Hunger.

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Bread for the World’s offers its 2014 Hunger Report: Ending Hunger in America

It comes with an Infographic summarizing the principal action points:

  • Create good jobs
  • Invest in people
  • Strengthen the safety net
  • Build strong partnerships

And Circa provides an illustrated, interactive (check the links!) account of an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation of how lobbyists and tax dollars affect the cost of your thanksgiving dinner.

The bottom line: Agribusiness spent $71 million on campaign contributions and $95 million on lobbying in 2012.  For example:

The National Turkey Federation — a member of an agricultural businesses coalition —has given $1.37 million in campaign contributions since 1989, focused mainly on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The group has also spent $3.58 million on lobbying during that time, taking aim at laws for turkey exports and antibiotic rules.

Enjoy your dinner!

Nov 27 2013

More on catfish inspection (absurdly enough)

My post yesterday about the politics of catfish inspection inspired comments that I need to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program, which requires this checklist for steps that must be taken by importers of meat, poultry, or processed egg products:

  1. Products must originate from certified countries and establishments eligible to export to the United States.
  2. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) restricts some products from entering the United States because of animal disease conditions in the country of origin (see APHIS Veterinary Services, National Center for Import and Export).
  3. Countries and establishments become eligible following an equivalence determination process by FSIS.
  4. Imported products must meet the same labeling requirements as domestically-produced products.
  5. After filing the necessary forms for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and meeting animal disease requirements of APHIS, all imported meat, poultry and processed egg products must be presented for inspection by FSIS at an official import establishment.

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it (see yesterday’s post).

Definition is also an issue.  USDA rules apply to all catfish species.  But to protect American catfish producers, the FDA defined catfish as the North American species.  But Vietnam produces different species, which makes catfish inspection even weirder.

Although FDA has had some problems with seafood inspection, it is generally responsible for dealing with fish safety and has had seafood HACCP requirements in place since the mid-1990s.  The USDA does not have authority over fish; it is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.

Why should catfish be an exception?

Why are we even talking about which agency should be in charge of inspecting catfish?

If the politic fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Addition, November 28: Members of Congress urge repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program.

Nov 26 2013

The hooks and lines of the farm bill: Catfish inspection

As I am endlessly complaining, the farm bill is so detailed, complicated, and opaque that no rational person can possibly understand it, let alone a member of Congress.

To wit: catfish inspection.

As Gail Collins noted in her New York Times column a week or so ago, some members of the House want the USDA to inspect catfish, not the FDA (which ordinarily is responsible for fish inspection).  The current FDA inspection office costs $700,000 per year.  The USDA office, established by the 2008 farm bill, costs about $14 million a year, even though the USDA has not gotten around to issuing rules or actually inspecting catfish.

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

The House version of the farm bill calls for repeal of USDA catfish inspection as a cost-cutting measure (the Senate farm bill does not mention catfish inspection, which means it leaves the USDA office in place).

Thad Cochran, Republican Senator from Mississippi, wants the House to delete the repeal provision, keep USDA in charge, and, thereby, protect the Mississippi catfish industry from foreign catfish imports.

Politico Pro quotes a member of Cochran’s staff:

Sen. Cochran has made it clear that his priority is to complete the new farm bill and get it signed into law. It sounds like there are some who have a deep under-appreciation of the diversity of Mississippi’s agriculture industry and the importance of this bill to the state’s farmers, foresters, hunters, and those in need of nutrition assistance.

The New York Times also points out that although some watchdog consumer groups support tougher safety standards for catfish (because of lower foreign standards for antibiotics and other chemicals), a Government Accountability Office report in May 2012 called imported catfish a low-risk food and said an inspection program at the Agriculture Department would “not enhance the safety of catfish.”

Now, says the Times in another article, a coalition of budget watchdog groups and a seafood trade group are lobbying to repeal the USDA’s inspection program.

All of this is in the House version of the farm bill, but unless you are a lobbyist for the catfish industry, you would never know it from the bill itself.  Here’s the relevant section from the  House bill.

catfish

As Gail Collins puts it,

See, this is what I like about the farm bill. The agriculture parts harken back to the golden era when Republicans and Democrats could work together to promote stupid ideas that benefited the special interests in their districts. And then go out and get inebriated in bipartisan drinking sessions. Now everybody is in the gym and then shutting down the government.

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